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A van lurched to a halt in a snow drift on North Broadway Avenue. The Rev. Glenn Fournier got out and approached two women huddled against a building, covered by a thin blanket.

“Kinda cold to be out tonight, isn’t it?” he said. It was minus 5 degrees at 8:30 p.m. on Friday.

Fournier wanted these women to come with him to the Montana Rescue Mission, out of the cold and onto a cot. After Fournier woke up the women, they demurred.

After more pleas, they accepted and went to the women’s shelter. Another person, a man laying in a sleeping bag, opted to stay where he was. The forecast called for temps as low as minus 20 that night.

Fournier and some volunteers have been searching the streets since the weather turned frigid, which could be deadly for those who spend their days on the sidewalks and their nights sleeping in alleys and along storefronts. 

For those who provide services to Billings' homeless population, it can be a struggle just to get people in for help. Many of their clients deal with addiction or mental health issues, and above all, they simply can't force someone to get help.

For a number of reasons, some just want to stay where they are.

“There’s a lot of them who know where the warm places are,” said Ed Zabrocki, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul in Billings.

His organization opens up at 8:30 a.m. with hot coffee and baked goods for anyone who stops by. They hand out sack lunches later in the day. Since St. Vincent de Paul bought its Montana Avenue property 42 years ago, people without another place to go have gathered outside its doors, day and night.

Zabrocki and his staff hand out cold-weather gear and also offer services for job seekers, renters and others. But they don't have an overnight shelter, which become increasingly important in dangerous temperatures.

“I believe we’re going to see more (deaths) if the weather stays this way,” Zabrocki said.

On Dec. 11, 65-year-old Gary Ames was found dead outside the St. Vincent de Paul building. An autopsy found he had prior medical issues and didn't die from exposure to the cold. The Montana Rescue Mission, one of just a couple overnight shelters, was blocks away.

Out at night

The Montana Rescue Mission adopted its "Code Blue" strategy in 2010. When the weather turns frigid, they suspend some of their rules to bring people into the shelter. Normally, residents have to be sober to stay the night.

No one is turned away, unless they've caused problems in the past. In his office, Fournier keeps a box of knives that he's confiscated from residents. 

Sometimes the Mission will tell people to stay away for a few days. Other times they have to go through a court process for a yearlong ban.

Fournier and a volunteer, Doug Graves, were out in the van on Friday, scanning the streets. They carried sleeping bags, socks and a bag of sandwiches in the back and took the same route they'd followed all week. Often, they see the same people.

“The greatest challenge that anybody faces out there is themselves,” Fournier said.

After dropping off the two women at the shelter, they passed the St. Vincent de Paul building. Seeing no one, they went to check on a man named Troy in an alley off of First Avenue North.

They enticed Troy with ideas of color TV and hot coffee. He usually wants to stay where he is, Fournier said, and he deals with substance abuse issues. When Fournier stood him up, he wasn't wearing shoes. It was about minus 6 degrees outside.

“The compounding disorders definitely have a lot to say about why they're out on the street,” Fournier said.

There are many reasons why people choose to sleep outside, even in extreme temperatures. Sometimes they've had bad experiences at a shelter and don't want to go back. Often, mental health and substance abuse interferes.

“A lot of them don’t want help. They want to continue living where they’re at,” said Josh Schoening, a downtown resource police officer.

Alongside a counselor, David Kobold, the officers work within a program that offers treatment to serial offenders who live on the street. Often, those offenses are for an open container.

But in extreme cold, Schoening said they do what they can to get people inside. They work with the Community Crisis Center most often. The organization is run by local health care organizations and focuses on mental health and substance abuse cases, and it has beds for overnight stays. Schoening said that the Crisis Center hasn't turned down their referrals.

In the elements

Fournier and Graves were able to get Troy, the man without shoes, to come back to the Mission. But others just decline. On cold nights, the goal is to get people to safety. Other times, it's an attempt to get them on a treatment path.

If someone stays at the shelter, maybe they’ll eventually comply with house rules to stay longer. Then maybe they’ll take advantage of services to get a job and secure a place to live. That's the hope.

But Fournier knows people who have been on the streets for decades, and making those changes can mean leaving behind some of the consistencies in that life.

"They all know each other,” Kobold said. “They’re all friends.”

And no one can make those choices for them. Fournier said he once met with a homeless man outside of a Wendys and asked him why he didn't want to come to the shelter.

"He said, 'Then I depend on you, and I'm not independent,'" Fournier said.

With the Code Blue effort, they sometimes bring a dozen people in from the streets. Most times it's just a couple, and other times no one.

On Friday, Fournier and Graves drove by the Jefferson Lines bus station. They checked on footprints at a dead end off of Sixth Avenue North and under a bridge at Coulson Park. They looked through the South Side streets, at The Vegas Hotel and in a bush behind the downtown Denny's.

There seemed to be few people outside as the temperature dipped to minus 10. Some people remained in the weather though, and Fournier said there's no single reason why they stay.

“It still bewilders me. I still don’t have an answer for that," Fournier said. "But it’s their choice.”

On another night, they'll go out and try again to bring them inside.


General Assignment Reporter

Reporter for The Billings Gazette.